Every once in a while it is given a long nostalgic look when someone is rummaging through in the attic looking for the crynoline slip or the prom dress or the formal winter coat, or simply ridding the place of clothes that have definitely outlived their use. On each visit the "Communion dress" is fondly passed over and allowed to inhabit the storage space a little longer, just in case. 

Now it has happened. The oldest grandchild will make her First Communion and her mother asks if "the dress" is still available. Could this dress, purchased for our own child before Vatican II, still be relevant to the current celebration of First Communion? 

Putting theology aside for the moment, it is evident that the abandoned dress needs some attention if our decisive little seven-year-old will be convinced of its loveliness. Far from brilliant white, it even has some brown spots and a slight tear on the shoulder seam. Carefully, it is lowered into a bathtub of tepid water and special soap, swished, and squeezed. There is little improvement, and it is left to soak. After several hours of kid-glove handling there seems to be nothing to lose, and a full-fledged bleach treatment is applied. It works beautifully. The dress is starched, pressed, and hung up for inspection by the red-haired candidate. 

The dress was purchased in 1961 for the oldest child of the family, an occasion happily remembered by both mother and daughter. With several younger siblings left at home, the shopping trip with just the two of us alone was extraordinary. The first stop was the upscale department store, just to see what sort of white dress was being offered to the fashionable communicant. The dress she tried on was organdy with eyelet trim on the bodice, sim- ple and exactly what both ofus had hoped to find. But it was so expensive. We hung it up on the rack again and left the store to visit every white-dress shop on the avenue, each one exhibiting a frock more elaborate than the last and utterly smothering her fair face and long braids. 

Stopping at the lunch counter to reconsider all we had seen, we nourished our sagging spirits. An egg-salad sandwich still holds a special significance for both of us. A decision must be made, and it is remarkable how responsible and mature that first child is expected to be. It was that first dress to which we both gravitated and the cost could be rationalized by the number of younger sisters who would wear it. The mutual agreement sent us scurrying back to the store to find the dress still available (the closer we came the more sure we were it had been sold). We paid the price and proudly headed home. The dress was resoundingly approved and held its own in the Communion procession. 

Was the cost justified by the use of the dress for the First Communions of the younger girls? Skipping a son, the next daughter (and mother of the grandchild now in need of a Communion dress) wore the dress two years later, lengthened to accommodate her height. The third daughter, however, was in the same class because she had skipped a grade. She borrowed a dress from a dear friend, looked radiant, and was characteristically happy with the arrangement. 

A boy was next in line, but a year later the dress was again removed from its plastic covering. Whereas the last occupant had been the tallest child in the family, this one was the smallest. So the hem went back up, past its point of original setting. Two more boys and a move from a Southern town to a big city on the East Coast intervened before the next female communicant. It was 1972, Vatican II directives were in full swing, women were pushing traditional limits, and our current seven-year-old had no intention of wearing the "Communion dress." She walked down the aisle in bright white pants. 

Later still, this child's younger three sisters all donned the dress, but under up-dated circumstances. Their preparation for First Communion was not through the parish school but through our Christian Family Movement group. Vatican II had ordained that the faithful, as true witnesses to Christ, were "strictly obliged to spread the faith by word and deed." Thus, the second youngest wore the dress but received her First Communion at home during a Mass celebrated by her priest uncle, a liturgy that marked the importance of the domestic church. Our dress was participating in some heady times. 

In 1980, our youngest child proudly put on the dress to be the single recipient of First Communion at a Mass in church. By then, the excitement and experimentation motivated by Vatican II had subsided and this little girl felt strongly that her community was those with whom she celebrated Sunday liturgy in church, rather than the schoolmates who would receive First Communion at a special Mass apart. 

The "Communion dress" has observed the progress of the family through religious tranquillity and tumult, but has always managed to rise to the occasion. Now it has arrived at the next generation. The 1998 class of communicants will process down the aisle and look much like that 1961 procession. But this ceremony will be a culmination of a full year's preparation involving the families, including a day-long activity underscoring the communal aspect of the Eucharist. The Spirit continues to blow through the church. The dress is ready for inspection. Her eyes light up, she exclaims, she tries it on. Alas, it is altogether too small.

Kathleen Hage

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